(This is the second in a three-part series on the meaning of suffering. For Part I: Life and the Promise of Suffering, go here.)
In the opening of his essay, Benatar tries to get the ancients on his side. He passingly references Ecclesiastes and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus as evidence that his anti-natalist ideas are not new. But he’s confusing literary expressions of human anguish with an argument against life itself. The moral injunction against suicide exists because, yes, sometimes we want to kill ourselves. When we’re in the thick of it, we can fantasize about non-existence. But Benatar gives that desire the final word; he enlarges it until it subsumes the wisdom and goodness and beauty and love that are also endemic to the human condition – and which often have their most powerful expressions against the backdrop of suffering.
In truth, the ancients had a profound sense of suffering as a means to wisdom. This is the central motif of Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia, in which the House of Atreus learns the bloody lesson that retributive violence begets more violence, and is thus a impoverished notion of justice: “Justice turns the balance scales, and sees that we suffer, we suffer and we learn.”
For Plato, the good life depends upon a well-ordered soul, which entails restraining the passions through one’s reason and will. This is not a painless process; moving from interior disorder to order requires patience, moderation, temperance, self-mastery. Aristotle, similarly, roots his concept of human flourishing (eudemonia) in virtue – virtue that is hard-won through effort and habit. His ethics echoes Hesiod, who describes, in Works and Days, the paradoxical connection between goodness and suffering: “Between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then she is easy to reach, though before that, she was hard.”
It is unclear whether virtue and goodness are values for Benatar. On the one hand, his descriptions of the harms humans inflict on each other and the natural world seems to imply that he sees human evil as a real problem. Yet, he classifies as ‘bad’ those behaviors that cultivate virtue, such as foregoing one’s own desire for the sake of another, because this is rarely pleasurable. His unquestioned premise that the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure would seem to preclude a world where people act for the good of a neighbor, or the commonweal, at cost to themselves.
* * *
Suffering strips life down to its barest bones. In times of plenitude, it’s easy to be lulled into the lie that we are in control, that we are strong and can take care of ourselves, that we don’t really need other people, and we certainly don’t need God. Suffering cuts through all that bullshit like a beam from a magnifying glass that exposes what actually matters, forcing us to reckon with the monstrous existential questions that, in times of comfort, we can easily ignore.
Job, that biblical icon of suffering, begins his litany of agony by cursing the day of his birth:
Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
may God above not seek it,
or light shine upon it.
This soliloquy darkly mirrors the creation of the world in the first chapter of Genesis. Job’s “let” echoes God’s command: Let there be light. In Genesis, light became, and the darkness did not overcome it. But here, in a poignant inversion, Job is longing for the darkness of non-existence. His lament reads like a poetic expression of the anti-natalist’s thesis, yet Benatar never mentions Job – probably because the story of Job as a whole portrays a much more complex understanding of suffering than Benatar would like to concede.
The Book of Job depicts in wrenching detail the existential dimension of suffering that is uniquely experienced by humans. Animals suffer as well, but they do not have the capacity to ask why. This why, and the silence that often accompanies it, adds another layer of distress to our suffering, one that Job voices powerfully. The ancient Hebrew scriptures, both here and in the Psalms, in Ecclesiastes, and elsewhere, do not shrink away from the question of human suffering in all its horror and mystery.
Job’s friends trot out their bad theology to explain this mystery away – at first gently, coaxingly, until they get frustrated and start beating Job over the head with it. They propose a tidy tit-for-tat understanding: suffering is always a recompense for sin. Thus, Job must have done something to deserve his calamitous misfortune. This bad theology is, at root, self-protective. If the friends can convince Job, and themselves, that this explanation is true, then they can sink back into the cushions of their own self-righteousness, content that calamity will pass them by, because they are good, Godly men, after all.
The best heresies are half-truths, and this one is no different. It is indeed true that sometimes, suffering can be directly linked to personal sin. Sin, after all, is a kind of self-poisoning that withers us from within and strikes out at those around us, breaking bonds between people, leaving behind a wake of pain and collateral damage. This is the kind of suffering that Aeschylus describes as bringing a harsh wisdom; the suffering caused by human evil teaches us to recognize what is evil and begin to purge it from our selves and our communities.
But the Book of Job depicts the inescapable reality of undeserved human suffering. Job’s friends are ultimately rebuked for their bad theology, their attempts at easy answers. What meaning, then, can be found in what Job endures? What other kind of wisdom can be found here, if any?
One of the more agonizing layers of Job’s suffering is his experience of the absence of God. He is crying out to God, grasping for him, and finding nothing.
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
He reminisces about his life before this present suffering, in which he lived in health and abundance, “when the friendship of God was upon [his] tent.” Job, in the height of his suffering, is experiencing the desolation of the anti-natalist cosmos, a cosmos devoid of God. Here, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does overcome it.
The divine speech, when God finally breaks into the narrative and responds to Job, is inscrutable and unsettling. Yet it must be read against the backdrop of Job’s spiritual desolation. God’s speech shatters the illusion of his absence in the prior chapters, giving a litany of his creations that displays not only his omnipotence, but also the dependence of all creation upon this omnipotence. It is not possible, at it turns out, to be abandoned by God. It is not possible to exist somewhere outside of the reality of God. God may have temporarily withdrawn his consolations, but his presence upholds the cosmos and cannot be withdrawn. His absence was an illusion.
In an essay on the Book of Job, G.K. Chesterton describes how this difficult, beautiful text both conveys and resists meaning:
Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain his design is itself a burning hint of his design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.
Chesterton is right; the Book of Job leaves the riddles of God intact, particularly on the question of undeserved suffering. And this is part of its wisdom – any attempts to answer this fundamental human quandary must always preserve its mystery, its gravity, lest we end up playing a game of “blame the victim” to get ourselves, or God, off the hook.
Yet I don’t quite agree that Job has been told “nothing.” He has experienced the unrelenting reality of God, not an aloof or distant God, but a God who will forever be mixed up in our business, a God who descends into our suffering and responds to our “why?” with his presence. This descent prefigures an even more radical descent, in which God not only responds to the one who suffers, but becomes the one who suffers.
One severe kind of wisdom that can come from suffering, whether it is undeserved or not, is an openness to the reality of God himself. Suffering weakens us, unmasks us, grinds down our defenses and can make us more receptive to divine love. When we are healthy and strong and successful, we too easily become our own gods, and that is a kind of spiritual death. Perhaps the most prominent motif throughout scripture, Old and New Testament, is the paradox of strength in weakness. God works intensely through those who are weak, those who are suffering, those who are meek and humble of heart; his power is most profound when it is moving through human weakness. This is the one whom I approve: the lowly and afflicted man who trembles at my word. There is, perhaps, no greater wisdom than this, the wisdom of humility, an awareness of who we are in relation to the One who made us.
Part III: Love and the Gift of Suffering, will be posted on November 13.